Friday, July 19, 2013

Thinking About Right and Wrong


Someone once told me that we shouldn’t tell others what is right and wrong for them. I see, but why do you get to tell me that saying so is wrong? Who put you in charge? Let’s talk about that for a while.
While not as popular as in previous generations, people have lines that they won’t cross—and they tell others they shouldn’t cross them either. Take marriage, for instance. A a couple of generations ago, interracial marriage was the en vogue fight. There was serious debate about the moral consequences if two people (a man and woman, mind you) of different races could marry. A majority of people in certain states felt like it was morally opprobrious to allow interracial unions (still, between a man and woman). The Supreme Court stepped in, however, and declared that no state could declare interracial marriage unlawful. In other words, the Court gave its stamp of moral approval to the mixed unions. And the decision was later hailed as a breakthrough in civil rights. A moral victory, as it turns out. It was good.
But, at the time, if you asked anyone whether they thought gay marriage was ok, it would (almost certainly) be out of the question. And it stayed that way for a long time. The Supreme Court only recently put its moral stamp of approval on homosexual behavior in 2003 with Lawrence v. Texas.
Now, however, gay marriage is accepted as the norm, at least among most of society’s professional, educated crowd. How did we get there? I don’t mean socially—anyone can trace the societal narrative of normalizing homosexual marriage. But how did we move from saying “wrong” two generations ago to “right” in this generation? And how do we know the old generation is wrong and we are right? Who decides these things?
It can’t be the majority, because the will of the majority changes constantly. And if our morality is constantly changing, then we have no basis to say that people who thought interracial marriage was immoral are wrong. That was just their morality. We also would have no basis to say that what Hitler did to the Jews was wrong. Yes, I went there; but seriously, the majority thought it was ok. Yet if you ask any sane person whether Hitler’s monstrosities were right, they would clearly say no. That’s why we call him a monster. So our morality cannot be determined by the majority. That’s why we fight for minority rights.Those rights have to come from somewhere other than the majority, or else we wouldn’t be fighting them in the first place.
Does the Supreme Court determine what is right and what is wrong? They often hand down decisions that tell us what our constitutional “rights” are. Well, great, but where did those rights come from? [hint: it’s not the Constitution]. Who gave these guys so much moral authority? And don’t they keep changing their mind (Dred Scott, anyone)?
All this to say that things change. Our conceptions of right and wrong evolve. But they are only conceptions—I want to know what is reallyright and wrong. There are certain things that every society for all of history have thought were wrong. Lying, cheating, cheating on your spouse (even if you have more than one), cold-blooded murder. No one debates whether these things are wrong—we just know that they are. But how do we know that? Who says they are wrong? And who gavethem authority to say it? We need to be asking these questions; we need to get this right.
Go and punch someone in the face and see what they say. If they say something like “you shouldn’t have done that!” just ask “why not?” That’s a moral standard they are holding you to. Every society, whether secular or religious, imposes moral standards on the members of that society. And those standards have to come from somewhere. I just want us to acknowledge where ours come from. And if we say “from within,” then I want to know why one person’s “within” wins against another’s.
These are important questions, and they need answers, especially when you pass laws telling people what they can and can’t do with their bodies. You better have a darn good reason why.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Zimmerman Trial and the Nature of Justice


On Saturday night, a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of all charges against him related to the death of Trayvon Martin. Immediately following the verdict—as was expected—commentators, pundits, and activists took to the tweets in protest. Some people praised the verdict as Zimmerman’s vindication against a liberal-media-run circus. Others labeled the verdict as nothing more than a “modern day lynching.” Few, however, respected the verdict as just, precisely because it was a verdict rendered within a just system.
Too often we lament the failures of the justice system when it reaches decisions that we do not agree with. I think we do this because we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a societal justice system. More than that, we have a fundamental mistrust (or, unbelief) in the justice of a good and sovereign God. And underlying both of these misconceptions is a dark desire to protect our self-idolatry from attack.
From its inception the jury trial has never been about justice for the victim. It is always about justice for the accused. So when Nancy Grace wonders if we will get “Justice for Caylee,” she’s got it all wrong. If the trial were about justice for the victim, we would demand a conviction in every trial. But we don’t—because the justice system seeks to impose justice on the accused. Thus, if the accused is innocent, justice demands they be set free. If the accused is guilty, justice demands a punishment. This concept is crucial if we are to understand justice correctly. It’s the system that provides justice for the accused, not a decision providing justice for the victim.
If we operate on the assumption that the system itself is designed to render justice, then a decision reached by a jury in a fair trial isnecessarily a just decision. If we don’t trust the justice system, then, well, why are we wasting money on it? Let’s just go with our gut every time and hope for the best.
So don’t be carried away by people who say that there’s no justice for Trayvon; that’s not what the trial was about. Trayvon is dead—tragically, for sure—but a conviction of George Zimmerman would not have brought him justice. That is why, in order to keep sane, we must trust in the justice and goodness of a sovereign God who will deliver justice in the end.
If you do not believe in the goodness and sovereignty of God, a jury trial will always frustrate your sense of justice, because there’s always a chance the accused will be acquitted. A trial becomes your last chance for justice—for both parties. But for those who trust in the goodness and sovereignty of God, we can be satisfied with a trial’s result because the accused got a fair shake and we know that the victim will ultimately see justice done—as we all will.
The attitudes we see in social media, however, bely our true hearts. We act like we care about justice, but what we really care about is our side, our agenda. And if our side doesn’t win, it’s a miscarriage of justice. If we really cared about justice, we would show deference to a system carefully designed to pursue justice. Now, we should be sad about the tragic cirucmstances surrounding Trayvon Martin’s death—I am not suggesting otherwise. His death was tragic, without a doubt. But what I want to challenge is the rhetoric that the trial’s result necessarily implies injustice or some sort of conspiracy. I think such talk betrays true justice.
Caring about justice—in its true sense—requires us to submit to an authority higher than ourself. It requires us to admit that we do not know everything and defer our judgment to a system designed to discover the truth and render judgment accordingly. This necessarily requires submission and humility—not characteristics that are highly valued in our self-autonomous society. So when a decision doesn’t go the way we think is right, our own sovereignty comes under attack. And to those who worship at the altar of self, this arrangement will not do. We will do whatever it takes to maintain the sovereignty of our agenda. That’s why we see such an outcry in high-profile murder cases, regardless of verdict. Someone wins and someone loses. And the justice system always gets disrespected.
The Bible, however, calls us to love justice, not an agenda.
So for those who call this trial a “modern day lynching,” I hesitate to think that the outrage stems from a close relationship to Trayvon and his family. The more likely scenario is that this result hurts the progress of their agenda—whatever that may be. Or the outrage is justified because the outrage itself promotes the progress of their agenda. Whichever it is, justice is not the concern—the agenda is. Andthat is an injustice.
The only person who really knows what happened that tragic night is George Zimmerman. No one else knows. So how can we confidently say that his trial was a miscarriage of justice? We can’t. We operate within a system that was designed to render a just result, and we have to trust it. And we can only trust the system if we have a right view of justice and a right view of a just God.